High Court: Only Rabbinate can certify kosher eateries

Judges rule out alternative certification, but give kashrut establishment two years to change its ways

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The building of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in Jerusalem (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The building of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in Jerusalem (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court on Monday dealt a blow to private bodies providing alternative kosher certification for food, ruling that businesses can only present themselves as meeting Jewish religious dietary requirements (known in Hebrew as kashrut), if they have a certificate from the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

Petitioned to interpret a clause in the 1983 Law against Kashrut Fraud, the judges ruled that “a business is prohibited from presenting its kashrut status in writing, whether by using the word kosher or not, unless it was given a kosher certificate by the body authorized by law to do so.” Businesses doing otherwise can expect to be fined.

However, the ruling will only apply for two years, during which the Chief Rabbinate will have to end its demand for restaurants to employ kashrut supervisors, according to the Ynet news website.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit declined to provide an opinion, Ynet reported, saying only that an alternative certificate was permissible so long as it did not include the word “kosher.”

Then-Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit (L) seen with then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (R) during the weekly government conference at PM Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on January 31, 2016. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
Then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit (left) seen with then-attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (right) during the weekly government conference at PM Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on January 31, 2016. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

This stance is in contrast to the position put forward by Mandelblit’s predecessor, Yehuda Weinstein, who told the High Court in May 2015 that the presentation of a kosher food certificate issued by a body other than the Chief Rabbinate did not contradict the provisions of the 1983 law, and that the government would both cancel existing fines and stop handing out new ones.

Monday’s ruling came in response to a petition presented by two Jerusalem restaurant owners — Shai Gini and Yonatan Vadai — who were fined for presenting kashrut certificates awarded by alternative certification bodies.

Both men had decided to do away with their Chief Rabbinate certification, Ynet reported — the former after being ordered to use vegetables guaranteed not to have any (non-kosher) worms in them; and the latter because he refused to continue to pay a salary to a kashrut supervisor who, he said, only showed up for a few minutes each week.

Both men continued to provide kosher fare, but with a privately issued kashrut certificate, which, they said, did not use the word “kosher” and appeared only on the internet. They claimed — unsuccessfully — that they had not broken the law because they had continued to serve kosher food and had not tried to mislead their customers.

Judge Noam Solberg diverged Monday from the majority opinion of justices Elyakim Rubinstein and Uri Shaham, saying that the legal interpretation of the existing law, about which they were ruling, could not be linked to Gini and Vadai’s particular case.

The ruling was about the law that existed, “not about what is desirable,” he wrote, and it was “not supposed to give a stamp of approval to the existing kashrut establishment.”

Justice Solberg referred to a damning State Comptroller Report issued in 2009, which detailed extensive corruption in the current kashrut system.

Merav Mizrachi and Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz outside Cafe Mizrachi, in Mahane Yehuda (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Merav Mizrachi and Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz outside Cafe Mizrachi in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who heads a project called Private Supervision, said that the issue would not be left solely to the Chief Rabbinate.

“Private supervision isn’t going anywhere. As the most professional and ethical body in Israel in the field of kashrut, we will not leave the public in the rabbinate’s hands,” Ynet quoted him as saying.

Leibowitz’s supervision is based on a cooperative effort between knowledgeable volunteers — largely women — and the kitchen staff at the participating restaurants, cafes and hotels. The initiative has seen its low points, with a Jerusalem branch of a well-known cafe chain pulling out of the program last year, but also many highs, as established rabbis increasingly endorse it.

“The judgment awards the rabbinate an unprecedented monopoly in the field of kashrut,” said Ricky Shapira-Rosenberg of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement and which represented the petitioners. “In our view, the judgment will cause disproportionate harm to freedom of occupation and religious freedom of business owners and of consumers.” She said she and her clients would be asking for a further ruling from an expanded bench of justices.

According to the Israel Religion and State Index of 2015 put out by Hiddush — which campaigns for religious freedom and equality between the different streams within Judaism — 73% of Israeli Jews favor ending the rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut supervision, some 49% favor opening the kashrut certification market to competition among professionals representing all Jewish denominations, and only 24% prefer Orthodox kashrut supervisors alone.

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